The Offies (The Off West End Theatre Awards) celebrate the work of the best independent theatres across London. With more than 400 productions in the running, winners are recognised both by a public vote and a panel of theatre critics. Ahead of the awards ceremony on Sunday 5 February, young assessor Jo Eliot reveals what it’s like to be involved with the awards, what they can offer for young and emerging companies, and why it’s always worth giving it a go.
How did you get involved with The Offies?
I am a member of the Haymarket Masterclass and saw online that Sofie Mason of OffWestEnd.com was launching a new awards body. I applied to be an Offies Assessor, which involved writing a review of a play I had found particularly inspiring, and happily I was accepted.
Could you tell us about your background?
After an English Literature degree, which was mostly spent on stage, I trained as an actress at Webber Douglas. I also spent a year as an emerging vocal artist at the Southbank Centre, which alongside performing, included writing both lyrics and scripts.
Do you have any special personal interests amongst The Offies’ categories?
As an actress, I am obviously particularly interested in acting, direction and script. However, with my assessor hat on, all the categories are important and I will think about each award category when I watch a show. A play that is nominated is generally outstanding across the award categories relevant to it.
How are things going so far?
It has been great. I have met some lovely fellow assessors and it is a wonderful way of seeing all kinds of theatre and theatre spaces. It opens up your mind to genres of theatre that perhaps you would not have chosen to go to previously and certainly keeps you up to date with what is going on in the industry. Assessing allows you to flex your analytical skills and also educates you about what works on stage as well as what doesn’t. It also makes you an expert navigator of London. I reckon I will be eligible for The Knowledge soon!
What does a young assessor bring to the awards?
Open mindedness towards work that pushes boundaries and dares to be different, and an eagerness to see new writing in particular. All Offies assessors come to see shows in a positive capacity – we are here to make sure your innovative set design or wonderful direction does not go unnoticed. We are here to highlight work and provide a platform to promote theatre that deserves more recognition.
How important are these awards for fringe companies and in particular for young people?
I think The Offies are really important for fringe companies, young people and anyone involved in theatre. The hope is they will put theatre companies on the map and help springboard them into a bigger consciousness within the industry and the general public too.
As an assessor, do you feel a sense of pressure and responsibility towards making sure the best of what’s out there is being represented and getting the attention it deserves?
Yes, very much so. The fringe is where so many top productions and companies germinate, and as an assessor I certainly feel a responsibility to find and champion the best work. It is also really exciting to help raise awareness of an outstanding show or individual so they do get the attention they deserve.
So young companies should apply for consideration for The Offies?
Yes, absolutely. If you are going to be performing to an audience for more than three weeks you have nothing to lose by inviting us to see your work.
What are the benefits of winning, or being shortlisted for, an Offie?
I hope that winning an award, or being shortlisted, boosts confidence and confirms that your work is being taken seriously. Winning an Offie certainly puts you or your company into the spotlight and raises awareness of your work, too, which hopefully leads to exciting opportunities. It is about recognition and raising the profile of a show or individual that might otherwise have gone under the radar. I would like to think that the benefits will increase as The Offies continue – we are only in our second year – and it will be exciting to watch the careers of previous and forthcoming winners. From fringe acorns…
Other opinions on the Offies…
Panelist and London theatre critic for The International Herald Tribune Matt Wolf agrees that “the Offies are great because one feels as if one is getting a sense of tomorrow’s theatre-makers today, and that feels like a very exciting place to be – not to mention huge fun, as well.”
Assessors Richard and Kathy Lynam added: “The real thrill for us is seeing new talent burst through and start to reach not only their own artistic fulfilment but also an appreciative and wider public. This kind of theatre is not merely important, it is absolutely essential because all of British theatre and thus a major element of British cultural life is built on it. If you examine the career paths of our major theatre talents, virtually every one will have started in Off West End productions. Very few have gone straight from, say, the catwalk to national acclaim. And even those who have often return to small theatre to learn. The Offies are an essential part of this essential theatre because everyone – but particularly young theatre companies – needs recognition in their lives, aspiration for their future and to learn from others’ success. The Offies deliver these with grace, modesty and joy in the theatre art.”
Find out more about The Offies on OffWestEnd.com.